Will we ever place a moratorium on the zombie genre? We are now on the other side of “The Walking Dead” syndrome, where any genre hybrid piggybacked on the zombie trend. Yet, the horror genre has always been an exceptional place to explore tough, real-world themes with the coating of a bit of fearful entertainment. “Cargo,” an Australian zombie thriller, wants to pair its stripped down zombie warfare with messages about fracking and colonization. The movie bites off more than it wants to chew and may overstay its welcome a bit. However, there’s plenty of neat craft and interesting work was done to recommend a stream for the horror enthusiast or fan of Australian cinema.
Andy (Martin Freeman), his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and one-year-old daughter Rosie (Lily Anne and Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins) wade out the zombie apocalypse on their houseboat. Concerned with their food supply, the couple hatches a plan to move the family towards food. Yet, a violent attack forces them to move quickly. Kay is infected and Andy must transport her to medical care. However, she turns into a zombie quicker than expected and turns on her own family. These opening moments carry a strong sense of urgency and tension. Danger lurks with every moment that passes and there’s an unknown element to when Kay may turn.
The bounds of the family are tested further as Kay turns and infects Andy before dying. Andy resolves to stay alive long enough to ensure his young daughter makes it to safety. This puts Andy and Rosie on a journey through the Australian outback, where they meet a host of colorful characters all attempting to survive the apocalypse. The majority of the film finds Andy befriending a young Indigenous girl, Tooni (Simone Landers) who seeks a cure for her Father who has turned.
Though ostensibly a zombie film, the movie steers relatively clear of zombies. The movie introduces us to a series of evil humans, handling the anarchist state by holding onto whatever power they have left and enacting violence with little forethought. A zombie movie not intent on showing zombie sounds refreshing at first. For much of the film, it comes off as interesting too. As we watch both Kay and Andy turn at different rates and stages, we feel the impending doom and terror that befalls their eventual turn. What’s much less interesting are the violent baddies we encounter every time Andy and co take a break and meet a human.
One of the earliest villains, Vic (Anthony Hayes), only ever wields a weapon and accent menacingly or espouses the environmental message the film tacks on. It turns out fracking was the force that caused the zombie apocalypse. “Cargo” wants to dip its feet in more serious topics, which is admirable. However, it does so merely by mentioning the problem, offering a “no duh” surface level critique. Somewhat more interesting is how the movie recognizes the effects of colonialism and how that plays out in Tooni and Andy’s relationship. Even though it acknowledges it, the film still boils down to a white savior narrative. Andy bravely journeys on to provide a better life for his daughter and new Indigenous friend despite his illness. If the movie wants to tackle larger topics, by all means, tackle them. However, commit to really exploring the issues it feigns interest in.
Still, there is a lot to like within the film. Martin Freeman, first and foremost, excels as he gets a leading role under his belt. He never veers too hard into the savior Father figure, nor does he come off as a suddenly experienced survivalist. What he does best is convey the shock that comes with having to think on one’s feet. He recognizes his plight is crazy. However, with nothing to lose, as he’s dying with every minute, there’s a refreshing abandon to his performance. He carries the screen and makes a great case for future leading roles.
The film also looks really gorgeous, thanks to cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson. The sparse Australian land looks as majestic as it does terrify. We watch our band of heroes slog through the desert and can find little to no life to cling on to. The film knows how to visually set up conflict in these passing moments and convey that danger lurks even in the open. This makes scenes with the human baddies even more of a drag, as they take away from the more interesting bits of tension happening in the elements.
“Cargo” fails to learn brevity. Part of what made “A Quiet Place” such a smash hit was its compact run time. That film feels like a thrill ride that never lets up, but never overstays its welcome. “Cargo” establishes its frightening premise and builds out the horrifying constructs of the world that led to the disease. It’s interesting to go on a slow, dramatic road trip through the Australian outback. However, after the hour and ten-minute mark, the movie attaches set pieces it doesn’t need. “Cargo” got made into a feature thanks to the smash success of the short that came before it, which netted over 13 million views on YouTube. It’s easy to see how one makes a compelling short in this world. Making a feature-length film takes more than a cool concept and themes of fatherhood. At least, a feature film should need more.
“Cargo” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.